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How one man can make a difference

June 16, 2000

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Hafez al-Assad never allowed the least hint of unseemly compromise to stain either his dignity or his country's. On matters of principle he stood like a rock defying both Israel and the United States. No chauvinist or mindless gunslinger like his troublesome neighbor, Saddam Hussein, he yet went to war when he had to but after weighing the odds and calculating the risks at stake. He was a thinking man, cerebral and astute. Combined with steadfastness and devotion these qualities turned him into a formidable ruler.

Syria before Assad seized total power in 1970 was known for its coups, its internecine conflicts and unions and breakups with Nasser's Egypt. Assad was no lily-livered democrat and indeed had he been one he would not have survived in the Byzantine maze of Syrian politics. Dissent therefore had no place in his lexicon. When what can loosely be termed as the Muslim brotherhood raised the banner of revolt in the city of Hama in 1983, artillery, no less, was used to crush them, leaving about 10,000 dead. At home no one dared challenge him again. With Assad 'iron hand' was no empty metaphor as it has been with successive Pakistani strongmen. When it came down on anyone no illusions were left about its weight.

Either through war or peace Assad was not able to wrest the Golan back from Israel. This remained a disappointment with him till the end. But he gave his country and his people something which, if measured in any true scales of justice, was taller than the Golan Heights: self-respect. Where other Arab countries were treated (as they still are) patronisingly or with derision by Israel and its patrons, Syria was not. Assad stood up to Israel and did not barter his country's honor for any burlesque peace as the other Arab frontline entities did one by one: Egypt, Jordan and finally a discredited PLO.

In many of Assad's obituaries it has been said that he gave Syria, with its 17 million people, an importance far outweighing its military strength. All too true and not without a hard lesson for a country such as ours. Assad never 'proclaimed' his country's importance or stressed its strategic location. He conducted himself with firmness and dignity, stood up to his enemies and stuck by his principles. Automatically, as the years rolled by, Syria's importance and the reputation of its ruler grew. Contrast this with Pakistan. A nation of 140 million souls with a huge military, a nation possessed now of nuclear weapons, its leaders forever mounting the parapets and proclaiming their country's strategic importance, indeed almost beseeching the world to be taken seriously, and yet, for all this chest-thumping, treated with scant respect.

Assad turned the few chips his country had into great and enduring advantages. Pursued by God knows what winds of ill fortune we have reduced comparatively greater advantages into things of no value. Assad was more of a warrior than all the tinpot figures we have had put together. But he never went into a war foolishly or without a clear recognition of the strategic objectives he wanted to attain.

Along with Sadat he plotted the 1973 war against Israel with the aim of breaking the stalemate gripping the Middle East since the great debacle of Arab arms in 1967. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 Assad felt Syria's interests to be threatened and therefore fought back by mounting an indirect assault (with the help of Lebanese auxiliaries) on the Israeli army. Ultimately Israel had to give up the occupation of Beirut and retreat to south Lebanon. In the Gulf War Assad sided with the Allied coalition not out of any love for the US but because Saddam's occupation of Kuwait posed a threat to Syria and the regional balance of power.

Consider the mess we have made of our wars. The 1965 we triggered without a clear conception of what we were trying to gain. The 1971 war was imposed on us as a consequence of our own follies. In Afghanistan we got involved for a few pieces of silver. The silver has long since gone, the wreckage and detritus of that thoughtless involvement remain. And in Kargil.... But let Kargil be for this was a piece of folly which only a Homer writing of another Trojan War can do full justice to. Would an Assad ever have contemplated such an ill-conceived adventure?

Each of Assad's conflicts reinforced his country's claim to be taken seriously. Each of our wars has dealt a blow to our self-confidence and diminished our importance in the world's eyes. No one had the gumption to tell Assad that Syria should forget about the Golan Heights. Everyone is telling us to forget Kashmir and get on with life. This has less to do with the merits of the dispute, or indeed with anything India might have done, than with our diminished standing in the world. It is true Kashmir is disputed territory while the Golan is a slice of the Syrian fatherland. But then if Syria had been weak Israel and the US would have treated even this fact with contempt.

No fiction is more misleading than the one which claims that Kargil highlighted the importance of the Kashmir dispute. A few more such highlightings and we can say goodbye to Kashmir, even its memory wiped clean from the international slate. But as if enough is not enough, consider the fresh pantomime being performed, with a former prime minister putting blame for the Kargil fiasco on the army high command and the high command, through its professional surrogates, calling the former prime minister's action shameful and an act of treason.

To begin with, Kargil was not our finest hour. If ever there was a shambles we walked into with our eyes open it was that. Of course our men fought valiantly. There is no question about it. But that is the whole point. What were their heroic and great sacrifices for? In the pursuit of what clear-sighted aim did they lay down their lives? Our soldiers and young officers fought no less gallantly in the great encounters of 1965 and 1971. But to what end? There has never been a shortage of bravery in the Pakistan army. But what about shortsightedness and lack of strategic brilliance at the highest levels? There has been no shortage of that either.

Nawaz Sharif disclaims responsibility for the Kargil fiasco. That's a lie. He and the then army command were equally responsible for it or else what was he doing as prime minister? The full story of Kargil from our side will never be written because revealing the truth about our past has never been our forte. If heavy curtains of silence are drawn around other shabby episodes in our history why should Kargil be any different? Still, if the truth is too painful why fall back on fantasies? By exonerating himself of all blame Nawaz Sharif is weaving a fantasy. By giving full vent to a misplaced indignation, the government is trying to weave a counter-fantasy. Both are doing no service to the country.

Actually, the prosecutor general on the accountability front, Farooq Adam, is greatly to blame for all this fuss. Why did he allow Nawaz Sharif to make statements to the press? By allowing Nawaz Sharif to meet newsmen freely, Farooq Adam must have thought he was being a gentleman. Nawaz Sharif, being who he is, took full advantage of the fact. Why should anyone be surprised? If Nawaz Sharif made a career out of taking advantage of other people, especially his benefactors, can he change his spots now?

Still, since the issue is once more fresh, a few more words about Kargil may be in order. If it was a blunder, the humiliation of the Washington Declaration flowed inexorably from it. Why blame Nawaz Sharif alone for this blow to what remained of Pakistani pride? After all he was only being himself and not Hafez al-Assad for he was no Hafez al-Assad. The best thing we can do therefore is to forget that Kargil and the Washington climbdown ever happened. We have never been at a loss for inventing myths. In the highest national interest let us invent another one.

Let the Chief Executive also abide by this myth and not keep exhuming the corpse of the Kargil operation as he has done again in a newspaper interview by saying that India had suffered huge casualties in the Kargil fighting. If what we ultimately suffered was a defeat in every sense of the word, of what consolation to us can be the extent of Indian casualties? It is like Germany saying that it lost the war but inflicted huge casualties on the Russians.

Another thing. In all the heat of official indignation in response to Nawaz Sharif's Kargil revelations not a word has been uttered about one telling revelation: that we lost more officers and men in Kargil than in the whole of the 1965 war. Shattering if true. Despicable on Nawaz Sharif's part if false. In any case, the nation deserves to know.

But I have digressed. In countries like ours where institutions are weak individuals matter enormously. Someone like Assad can bring honour even to a small country. Marionettes and dummies can bring disgrace to even bigger ones. Syria was lucky to have someone like Assad for 30 years. It has been our misfortune to have a string of windbags and empty vessels for much longer than that.